Can your nose and brain fool your taste buds when it comes to the sweetness of chocolate milk? Yes, and the secret ingredient is vanilla.
Adding vanilla creates the sensation that chocolate milk is sweeter than it actually is, say researchers at the Pennsylvania State University. Their findings have important implications for nutritionists such as those looking for a reduced-sugar chocolate milk for the National School Lunch Program.
The idea that odors can enhance taste is not new, but food researchers are beginning to leverage the association between taste and smell into something that can reduce the amount of sugar in food and drinks.
Participants in the Penn State study took part in a blind taste test of four samples. They were not asked to rate the characteristics of each drink such as taste and sweetness. Instead, they were simply told to choose the best-tasting option, and the one with vanilla won out.
Their responses showed sugar could be reduced by 20% to 50% in vanilla-laced milk without affecting the perception of sweetness. That’s due to a learned, associated odor that tricks the brain into believing the milk’s sweetness hasn’t changed.
Vanilla wasn’t the only additive that boosted milk’s perceived sweetness, the researchers found. A beef odor also slightly enhanced milk’s sweetness.
The findings, researchers noted, have significant implications as food manufacturers move to reformulate their products to cut sugar.
Next, the researchers will work on a reduced-sugar chocolate milk that relies on a sweetness synergy between vanilla and sugar. To do that, they’ll be relying on vanilla to find a not-so-sweet sweet spot.